Category Archives: Interfaith

pic of Jesus statue captioned with "oy."

What Do Jews REALLY Think About Jesus?!

Dear Josep,

With Holy Week beginning today and Passover beginning tomorrow night, this is a time of year that brings up not only joy and festivity, but also some complexity with regard to Jewish-Christian relations. In the past, Easter was a deadly time to be Jewish. All the focus on Jesus’s death stirred up a lot of anti-Jewish sentiment, because until very recently, Christians believed we were responsible for his death. Many of the worst anti-Jewish riots occurred around Easter time.

Eitan and I have both had the experience of meeting a Christian who has never met a Jew before. (I’m sure this is news to you. 😛 ) Especially if that Christian is a Protestant who grew up in a very traditional community, the first question we get, almost always, is:

So what do you think about Jesus?

pic of Jesus statue captioned with "oy."

We stifle a sigh and try to figure out how to answer that question as tactfully as possible.

Look–I get it. To most Christians, Jesus is God, except he’s the “personal connection” part that feels like your buddy and friend and father and confidante. For many of the people who ask me this question, their lives and the lives of their entire community revolve around Jesus. It’s very difficult for them to fathom how somebody could possibly live a deeply religious life with no Jesus.

Well… here is my complete and honest answer.

Truth Is–We Don’t Think Much About Him at All.

If a practicing Muslim walked up to a religious Christian and asked: “What do you think about Mohammed?”, many Christians would probably answer something along the lines of, “Uh… you mean that guy people got shot in France for drawing cartoons of?”

Mohammed is not even in their frame of religious reference. He’s not a figure involved in their practice, prayers, or religious contemplation.

That’s how it is for Jews vis-a-vis Jesus. He’s just not relevant to us.

We Think He Was Just a Guy

So there are a few things Christians believe about Jesus that Jews completely reject.

The first is that he was the Messiah and a prophet.

Both of these things are believed, to some extent, by Muslims as well as Christians. So give each other a high five. We Jews are gonna just… stay out of that party.

The reason we don’t believe he was the Messiah is pretty straightforward: he didn’t fill a single one of our traditional criteria. Our readings of the messianic prophecies in Isaiah, Ezekiel, etc. are very different from the Christian interpretations. See here for the Jewish concept of the Messiah.

We don’t believe he was a prophet for two reasons: one, we believe prophecy officially ended after the First Exile and that there have been no real prophets since; two, Jeremiah explicitly warns that anyone who tells us to defy the teachings of the Torah is a false prophet, and… well. (It may be arguable that Jesus never did tell anyone to defy the Torah, and that it was only Paul who did. Paul is a whole ‘nother can of worms.)

If this was the only difference, however, Christianity would still be a messianic subgroup of Judaism, as it was at first. It was only when the theological stuff started to get weird (*cough*Paul*cough*) that Christianity split off and became its own religion.

So the second thing we reject is the concept of the Trinity, and of Jesus being the son of God.

This theological concept is totally beyond the pale of Jewish belief. We believe in one invisible, omniscient, omnipresent God. Not in one God who is divided into three “parts” and certainly not a God who ever manifested Himself in a human being. That’s just… no.

Thanks, but We’ll Atone for Our Own Sins

The third thing Jews reject about the Christian idea of Jesus is this idea that he was the “sacrificial lamb” who died to atone for the Original Sin and all subsequent sins of humanity, replacing the need for animal sacrifices for atonement.

First of all–we have a very different concept of what the Original Sin was and what it means for humanity. You can read more about that here. In short: we don’t believe anyone is born “tainted” with it and we don’t believe atonement for it is necessary. We believe people are judged by God according to the choices they make during their lives, not according to an ill-advised bite of fruit taken by an ancestor thousands of years ago.

Second of all–we already have a way to atone for our sins. It’s called teshuva, and it is a deeply personal process that only the sinner can do for himself. You can read more teshuva about here.

Third of all–atonement sacrifices were only one kind of animal sacrifice, and as far as we’re concerned, those are still “on.” Most of us (Orthodox Jews) believe that when the Temple is restored we’re going to go right ahead and do those again. Replacing them with a dude who was actually God and sacrificed himself was definitely never on the agenda.

So If He Was Just a Guy–What Kind of a Guy Was He?

Right. So here’s where things can get a little hairy.

Jewish opinions on this range from the most generous: “He was a kind teacher who was misguided in his teachings, but they brought the world to an awareness of One God, more or less, and for that we can be grateful” to “He was a horrible person who defied his rabbis and tricked hundreds of people.”

The latter opinion I read in an essay in a collection of Jewish responses to missionaries, and I found it rather harsh. I tend to lean towards the liberal side, but… again, I don’t really spend a lot of time and effort thinking about this. I don’t actually care what kind of a guy he was. He’s not relevant to my life.

Why Jews Get Prickly When Christians Ask Us This Question

I really believe that most people who ask this question are genuinely curious and have the best of intentions. I’m even willing to forgive the gentle missionizing I’ve gotten here or there–“You really should read the New Testament, I think it will be very meaningful for you” type things. I know this comes from a genuine concern for my soul, as according to traditional Christian theology, I’m going to end up in Hell for all eternity after I die for believing all the things stated above. They don’t want that to happen to me. I really do appreciate the concern.

But.

Let’s be frank: it was not so very long ago that Christians were burning us at the stake “out of concern for our souls.” Like, yes, I do believe many of them were genuinely concerned and acting out of what they thought was kindness, but… my appreciation has limits, mmkay?

In medieval Europe Jews were forced to sit in our own synagogues and listen to preachers lecturing about Jesus and salvation as part of a general strategy to get Jews to convert. Those days are over. If anyone, however well-meaning, starts aggressively proselytizing me, I am going to walk away. Because it’s the 21st century and I can do that now without getting my throat slit.

Therefore, if I just met someone, and they ask me what I think about Jesus, I will be on edge. I never know what their next question or statement is going to be. It’s not at all unlikely that it will contain some subtle or not-so-subtle attempt at soul-saving. And that’s gonna be awkward for everybody.

Speaking of which, a note to our readers: any comments to that effect will be deleted. You’re not going to change my mind about Jesus. Ever. Don’t waste your time.

“Jews for Jesus”

There is an unfortunate movement you may have heard of that calls itself “Jews for Jesus” or “Messianic Judaism.”

I prefer to call them, “Christians Posing as Jews.”

This group claims to be Jews who merely accept Jesus as the Messiah. They use Jewish lingo, Jewish symbolism, and Jewish rituals. But in practice, these people are not Jews, they are Christians. Many of them are not ethnically or halakhically Jewish and have no religious Jewish background. They claim outwardly to believe only that Jesus was the Messiah, but their beliefs about him are actually consistent with Christianity. They are aggressive missionizers and prey on lonely Jews with little knowledge. I know a few people who got involved with them and had a very difficult time getting out.

It may surprise you to hear me speak so harshly about a religious group. While I may have my disagreements with Christians, Muslims, Hindus, et al, I don’t have a problem with people who practice their faiths in earnest.

But you know me; if there’s one thing I have zero tolerance for, it’s dishonesty.

These people claim to be a stream of Judaism. They are not. They are, at best, a group of people who think they are following Judaism but are actually Christians. At worst, they are a deceitful stream of Christianity that is trying to save Jewish souls by pretending that Christianity and Judaism are not mutually exclusive.

I am not cool with that.

What I am cool with, is Christians celebrating their own faith and traditions. So on that note, a blessed Holy Week to you and all who celebrate, and Chag Sameach to all our Jewish readers!

Love,

Daniella

Guest Letter from Abi: Praying Together

This letter is from my dear friend Abi. Abi has been involved lately in interfaith dialogue specifically between Muslims and Jews, and peace and dialogue initiatives addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A mutual friend of ours joked recently that “Abi is to Muslims what Daniella is to Christians…”

(…I think she was referring to things like, me posting ranting tirades in defense of the Pope and Catholicism on Facebook, and then joking with my Catholic friend about it in Yiddish.) (…What? You should be asking more questions about the Catholic friend speaking Yiddish than about me defending the Pope. 😛 )

Ahem. Anyway. Abi’s letter is about interfaith prayer, and I felt it was fitting since I have been covering the topic of prayer, and in honor of Ramadan, which began last night. Speaking of which, we have a great upcoming guest letter on Ramadan, so stay tuned! 😉 I also have another, related story that I will share after her letter.

Chodesh tov, Ramadan kareem, and enjoy!


Hi Josep,

I’m Daniella’s friend Abi and like Daniella I am also a Modern Orthodox Observant Jew. I find your relationship with Daniella inspiring and I wanted to share with you today some thoughts about interfaith prayer.

I recently saw this video about an organized event bringing Jews and Muslims to pray together. Here is the video.

Watching it reminded me of a wonderful experience I once had in my college in Jerusalem. I would always look for an empty classroom in the break to pray the afternoon prayer, mincha. (There is actually a synagogue on campus but it was locked most of the time.) Often people would come in in the middle of my prayers if they had a class there after the break and sometimes I would get very distracted, so I always hoped nobody would come in.

On one such afternoon, I had already started praying and I noticed out of the corner of my eye a female student walking in. I was hoping she wouldn’t distract me by talking on the phone and that more people wouldn’t come in. But then she knelt down and prostrated herself and I realized that this was a Muslim woman and that she was joining me in prayer.

It felt very special to be praying side by side, in different ways, but to the same G-d. My kavana (intention and focus on prayer) intensified and I felt so grateful to this woman for joining me. I can’t quite describe the feeling that washed over me but I felt very connected to my prayer and to G-d at that moment.

She finished before me and she left and by the time I had finished she was gone. I really wanted to thank her for having the courage to join me and tell her how much it meant to me, but I didn’t know where to find her.

Listening to the joint prayers on the video reminded me of that feeling of connection to G-d and to each other through prayer.

I pray that we learn to love ourselves, each other and G-d, and find many ways to connect.

Thanks for listening,
I hope you are well,
Abi


So here’s my story, which is actually my husband Eitan’s story. Eitan is a rabbi and tour guide, and a couple weeks ago he was guiding a very special “interfaith” group of college students from the USA–mostly Christians, but a Muslim and a Jew as well. He had a similar experience to Abi’s when the Muslim girl asked to pray the afternoon prayer him while they were in the Old City, and they did, Eitan facing the Temple Mount and the student facing Mecca. But that’s not what the story is about; it’s about the stop they made in the White Mosque in Nazareth. The man who received them and showed them around was an Arab Muslim in his 70’s. When asked if Shia Muslims were also allowed to pray at the mosque, he said, “Sure, Muslims of any denomination can pray here. Jews can pray here too.” He told of a time 50 years ago when he was close to his Jewish Moroccan neighbors, and their families would eat from the same serving plates. “Nowadays everything is politics,” he lamented.

He then showed the group how he uses his prayer beads. Eitan remarked that it made sense to have something to fiddle with while one prays to aid concentration, and joked that he should get something like that to play with too. The man said, “Here, take mine!” And he gave Eitan his prayer beads.

These ones. Muslims use them to help them keep count when reciting the 99 names of Allah.
The prayer beads he gave Eitan. Muslims use them to help them keep count when reciting the 99 names of Allah.

They hugged, and Eitan says when he turned back to his tourists, there wasn’t a dry eye in the group.

Inshallah (God willing–Arabic), od yavo shalom aleinu (peace will yet come upon us–Hebrew).


Blog readers: Abi, Josep and I would love to hear about any experiences you may have had of connection to people of different faiths. You can share with us in the comments, or write your own guest letter!

Crossing Boundaries

Dear Josep,

So I have to tell you a story.

Yesterday H wore one of the Barcelona soccer team shirts you gave us. The kids wear them frequently, FYI.

This one. Happens to be my favorite. I love the color.
This one. Happens to be my favorite. I love the color.

There was a substitute teacher at his kindergarten yesterday, someone who is not usually part of the staff and had not seen him wearing one of the shirts before. She noticed something about it that I hadn’t: the upper left section of the FCB symbol is a St. George’s cross. [Blog readers: as I wrote in my post about St. Jordi’s Day, St. George (Jordi in Catalan) is the patron saint of Catalonia. If you missed it, read it. It’s funny. 😉 ]

Hmm… is this a problem, you ask? Well, not exactly. It’s the same symbol that appears on the Swiss flag, and the British flag, and, you know, the Red Cross and all. Religious symbols that are used in what is very clearly a non-religious context are okay according to Jewish law. (Some may argue that sports is a religion in and of itself, but let’s not get into that!)

There are, however, those who feel that there is inherent… um… negativity in certain symbols, such as the cross, and that they have negative spiritual influence on those who wear them or come in contact with them. So this substitute teacher is apparently one of those people.

Now before I go on, full disclosure: I am also fairly uncomfortable around Christian symbols. As my activities of the past couple years and my Facebook friends list testify, I have gotten a lot more comfortable with interacting with other faiths. When we arrived at our beach rental in Florida to discover that our hosts had graciously provided for all our physical and spiritual needs:

beach house christian symbols

…my reaction was of amusement more than discomfort. (I posted about this at the time on LtJ’s Facebook page.) Still, I am a Jew, and here’s a shocker: I do not believe in Jesus 😛 Moreover, the crucifix has been a symbol of persecution of my people through much of history, and its spiritual significance does not speak to me. I do believe, to some degree, in the power of symbols, much like I believe in the power of words. And much as I may respect Christians and Christianity, I am not a Christian and proper boundaries must be established. The room pictured on the right was not ours so we let our in-laws decide how to handle it, but we discreetly took down the crucifix in the kids’ room (not pictured) and put it back up when we left. We decided Mary could stay in our bedroom, ’cause, you know, whatever, it’s just a painting of a lady.

A nice Jewish lady. 😛

Anyway, the substitute teacher. So apparently she, like our hosts in Florida, felt a personal responsibility for H’s soul, and proceeded to explain to him that it is very bad for a Jew to wear that symbol, and then to tell him a story that involved a famous Jewish rabbi, Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu, not letting someone into his hospital room because there was a small cross shape on the tag of his shirt. That story was relayed to us later by H in the following manner: there was somebody who wanted to go into the hospital, but they wouldn’t let him, because he was wearing a symbol of the goyim (gentiles).

I sent a very stern message to the main kindergarten teacher (not yet knowing that it was the substitute who had told him this), that read: “I would have appreciated it if you would have spoken to me about H’s shirt rather than relayed the message through him. The shirt was a gift from a dear friend of mine who lives in Barcelona, and I hadn’t even noticed that there was a cross on it… We educate our children to respect every person regardless of religion, race, or gender, and that shirt is actually very important to me in the context of educating H in respect and appreciation of people who are not Jewish.”

The teacher responded with bewilderment, and after some discussion it became clear that it was the substitute who had had this conversation with him. The teacher took this very seriously, thanked me for telling her and spoke with the substitute. The latter then called me and proceeded to give me the following non-apology:

“You are absolutely right, I should have said it to you and not through him, but what can I say… it just came out… apparently from God… you see, your son is so special, he’s really a very elevated soul, I see how he speaks and his beautiful drawings, there’s really something very special about him, and my heart hurts for him and all the difficulties he has had. It’s because of his elevated soul that these difficulties are attracted to him, you know? So I saw that shirt with the symbol, and you know, it’s such a strong symbol, and Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu writes about how much negative influence this symbol can have… I asked H about the shirt and he said, I don’t know, something about an uncle or something who lives in Spain…” (You’ve been upgraded to uncle! Congratulations! 😛 ) She then proceeded to explain to me about the actual version of the story she had told him. “If he were my child I would be so careful about things like this… but I know, he is your child, and maybe you don’t believe in such things. But it was like when you see a child running into the street, and even if he’s not your child, you just have to shout at him to get out of the street…”

Through gritted teeth, I thanked her for her concern and her appreciation of H, and repeated again that she should have mentioned it to me and not to him, and that she should think about the effect stories like that might have on him, since it seems to have scared and upset him a little. I explained to her as well, though I know it would probably scandalize her, about my philosophy of educating for tolerance… and about the identity of the giver of the shirt. 😉 (People who are familiar with the norms of my community don’t even know what to do with me telling them that I have a “dear friend” who is non-Jewish, male, and from Spain. Too bad she was on the phone so I couldn’t see her face. 😛 )

The permanent staff of the kindergarten responded with utmost seriousness and professionalism to the incident. The main teacher told me that the staff discussed it and is going to meet with all the teachers including the substitutes to clarify the professional boundaries of the classroom.

The funny thing is, Josep, that if it had had nothing to do with you, I probably would have just sort of rolled my eyes and beneath the exasperation and indignation that this woman had the gall to undermine the education of my child, I might have even felt a little admiration for her devotion. Part of my whole “interfaith” thing is that I have a kind of soft spot for people who are extremely devoted to their faith and who maintain a spiritual awareness at all times. But because that shirt was a gift from you, and is important to me–obviously, not just in the context of education–for that reason… boy, did she strike a nerve. When H reported the incident I got so angry, to the point that Eitan had to talk me down a little and remind me that I was speaking to my almost-six-year-old son.

*sigh*

Eitan blacked out the cross on the shirt with a permanent marker. I had mixed feelings about him doing anything to it, and I really hope it does not upset or offend you. You should know that I treasure all the gifts you have given us–physical and spiritual.

Much love,

Daniella